A total of 188 countries are covered in the United States' 2015 report on "Trafficking in Persons", with Thailand down in Tier 3, the lowest level, along with the likes of North Korea, Yemen, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Thai authorities said yesterday that the latest TIP report did not reflect the measures taken by the government over the past year in tackling cross-border human-trafficking cases, especially those involving Rohingya and other migrants. At Tier 3, the US president is empowered to slap penalties on Thailand within 90 days. Malaysia was upgraded to the Tier 2 watch-list in the 2015 TIP report, even though both Malaysia and Thailand were downgraded to Tier 3 last year for failing to tackle the human-trafficking issue.
Critics have questioned whether the TIP report is being used as a "political tool" to achieve the United States' objectives in various parts of the world, with the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) cited as an example.
The TPP, a free-trade agreement on which 12 countries are currently negotiating, has been spearheaded by the US, with multiple rounds of talks taking place over the past several years.
In this TPP framework, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia are already among the participating countries whose trade ministers are scheduled to join a meeting with the US and other counterparts in Hawaii this week.
For Thailand, the bid to join the TPP started a few years ago. But it has been unsuccessful so far. Prinn Panichpakdi, head of CLSA Securities (Thailand), said the US TIP report could have been used to bring Thailand into the TPP negotiations, which he said might not serve Thailand's best national interests, especially in terms of a further opening up of the financial-services industry and the need to buy more expensive drugs.
On the other hand, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, led by the ASEAN Plus Six group, is a more suitable framework for Thailand for trade and investment liberalisation than the US-led TPP, Prinn said.
There has also been a regional power play with the US on one side and China on the other. China is seen as the predominant leader in ASEAN+3, which groups the 10 ASEAN member countries with China, Japan and South Korea, while Australia, New Zealand and India are added to ASEAN+6. However, China is not involved in the US-led TPP approach to trade and investment liberalisation, while Australia, Canada, Japan and Mexico are among the participating countries in addition to Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia.
As China seeks to expand its regional role, it has led the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has attracted dozens of Asian, European and other countries as members, including Thailand and other ASEAN members.
So far, the US has not joined the AIIB.